I often look at government reports and think to myself “hang on a sec, that’s not right”. Nowhere more so than when I look at some of the government’s pronouncements on the early years sector. If you are a parent, here’s a quick question for you. Would you rather that your three year old child was in an early years setting where there was (a) one adult to every thirteen children or (b) one adult to every five children? If you answered (a) you are correct and if you answered (b) you do not exist. Because the “Review of Childcare Costs” published yesterday by the DfE claims that: “Parental demand does not appear to be a factor in encouraging this common practice [of using higher than statutory ratios].” Clearly this will be news to the parents who are on our preschool committee and who fundraise tirelessly to ensure that the children have a high ratio of adults to work with them. It will also be news to our preschool staff who, given the choice between being paid more or maintaining our ratio of one adult to five children, refuse to change the ratios.
At this time of year, our preschool tends to have lower numbers of children attending than we do in the spring and summer months. This is perfectly normal, because at the end of the academic year, all the four year olds leave our setting and head off to primary school. The younger ones then gradually increase the hours they attend over the course of the year. In theory, there are a couple of days each week when we could open with just our setting leader in the building (she is an EYP, which means that she ‘buys us’ a ratio of one adult to thirteen children). So, here’s another question for the parents among you. Do you think we should (a) open our setting with only one person in the building, or (b) staff our setting with at least two people even if the statutory ratios do not require it. It is probably not much of a surprise to you that we choose (b) and would not dream of opening with (a). For safety reasons, it would obviously be a terrible idea to open with only one member of staff. However, it is clearly not obvious to the DfE, because in the report they claim: “there is scope for efficiencies in the staffing model, and specifically staff to child ratios.“
In their report, the DfE helpfully point out that “providers that staff at a higher ratio of staff to children … are incurring significantly higher costs. They are also foregoing significant revenue.” Gosh, why didn’t I think of that when I look at our cashflow forecasts each month? How did it not occur to me that higher ratios would mean higher costs? (Spoiler: I did.) The problem with looking at childcare in this way is that it ignores the realities of the sector and, even worse, it ignores the human beings who work within it. When numbers drop each September we have a painful decision to make. We could cut staff hours to the bone, slashing the pay of the highly dedicated people who work so hard to make our setting sustainable. We could look at what the DfE calls “unit costs” (but which we prefer to refer to as “children”). We could take a hard nosed, business decision to maximise income by minimising staffing. We could destroy the team we have worked so hard to build, and take income away from practitioners who already work for a pittance. Yes, we do have to adjust hours slightly in September, but we do what we can to minimise the impact on our staff. I can imagine some number crunchers beavering away somewhere in government, wondering why on earth we take the decisions we take. And my answer would be this. I do it because I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not hate what I see, and I do it because ‘maximising profits’ is not the only thing of value in life.